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David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Kodak’s New Super 8mm Camera – The Return of Film

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Just like vinyl records vs. mp3s and CDs, actual film is making a comeback in cinema.

Still, I was surprised by this news item; Kodak is re-introducing a Super8mm camera that shoots actual film, which at this point is being marketed at much too high a price point for the average consumer, but is rather aimed at those who want to use film as a medium for artistic expression.

The last Super 8mm camera I owned, many years ago, was a Kodak Super 8mm sound camera, which used 50 ft. cartridges of film with a magnetic sound strip on the side – it worked well enough, particularly when one used high speed Ektachrome film, but it was almost instantly superseded by the advent of video cameras – and that, for the moment, was the end of that.

However, as Don Clark notes in The Wall Street Journal, “Eastman Kodak Co., the photography pioneer that was disrupted by the digital revolution, is placing a new bet on a gadget from a simpler time. The company is using the Consumer Electronics Show to lay out plans for a film camera based on the Super 8 design launched 50 years ago. Kodak stopped producing Super 8 units in 1982, after video cameras savaged the market for home movies made with film.

Jeff Clarke, Kodak’s chief executive, isn’t ignoring the changes in the market now that billions of consumers own mobile phones with digital cameras. But he believes professional filmmakers and serious amateurs will appreciate the subtle qualities of an analog medium that many Hollywood veterans used to learn their trade.

Mr. Clarke cites the preference among many Hollywood directors to shoot on 35-millimeter or 70-millimeter film. He also sees a parallel in the way some audiophiles prefer the analog medium of vinyl records.

Kodak plans to play on some of the conveniences of digital technology. Just as movies shot on film are usually converted to digital files for editing and projection, buyers of the new camera that turn to Kodak for processing will get a digital copy of their imagery as well as eight-millimeter film to use in projectors.

The new camera will feature a digital viewfinder, he said. ‘This is no longer the classic script of a war of digital versus analog,’ Mr. Clarke said. ‘What it really is now is the complementary characteristics of both.’ . . .

The first Super 8 camera was launched at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and went on sale the next year. It featured a pistol-style grip and packed eight millimeter film in a cartridge, an advance that avoided the need to thread film through the camera in the dark.

Kodak’s effort to revive Super 8 is aimed in large part at film schools, where many students no longer get a chance to experiment with analog footage, Mr. Clarke said. He also expects some people making commercial or experimental films–who have sometimes used eight- or 16-millimeter footage–to try the new product.

Mr. Clarke said Kodak has received expressions of support for the new camera by many Hollywood directors, including Steven Spielberg and Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, who directed a 2011 film called Super 8 and was famously hired by Mr. Spielberg as a 14-year-old to work on the older director’s Super 8 film archive.”

I would also venture to say that a lot of old Super 8mm cameras will now be brought back to life, assuming that Kodak makes enough raw stock. And as one commenter on the article noted, “Dwayne’s in Parsons, KS (notable as the final Kodachrome shop) will process a 50ft super-8 cartridge for $12. Just saying.” Hmmmm . . .

So – this is interesting – another sign of the celluloid backlash. We’ll have to see what happens.

Video: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Here’s a brief video by Curt Bright about the difficulties facing indie filmmakers in the 21st century.

For some time now, Curt Bright and I have been creating educational videos for a UNL series called Frame by Frame, covering various aspects of film, media, and the digital world as we enter the first decades of the 21st century. In this episode, I talk about the problems facing independent creators now – most specifically, how to get their work out before the public in an oversaturated marketplace.

Where once every film had to open in a theater in order to make back its investment, now there are so many different platforms available that distributors throw their cash at those films where they have the highest degree of financial exposure, resulting in a world in which only mainstream blockbusters make it to a large audience. Here, I discuss ways to work around this, and get a more balanced view of what’s going in the world of cinema on a national and international level.

Thanks to Curt Bright, as always, for such a great job in shooting and editing these videos.

Manoel de Oliveira’s Last Film: “Visit, or Memories and Confessions”

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira left a surprise after his recent death at age 106; a film shot in 1982, but never released.

Readers of this blog will know that of all filmmakers working in the 20th century, I value Manoel de Oliveira above everyone else; this is a purely personal choice, and anyone would be foolish to discount the value of such auteurs as Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – the list goes on and on – but Oliveira speaks to me the most clearly, and I find his best films inexhaustible treasures that can be visited and revisited over and over again, yielding new insights with each viewing.

Oliveira was also a trickster of sorts; many of his films have surprise endings, which you can’t see coming in the distance, and now, in death, his estate has released Oliveira’s last film, shot in 1982, but which Oliveira insisted could not be screened until after his death – on April 2, 2015 – and until the first screening of Visit, or Memories and Confessions, the film sat in a vault for more than thirty years.

Finally – though frankly I wish that Oliveira had lived another twenty years, and made twenty more films, rather than see this posthumous effort – Visit, or Memories and Confessions was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. As critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote of the occasion, “Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made a film in the early 1980s that he requested not be shown to the public before his death.

That turned out to be more than three decades after the film was shot: Oliveira died in April at 106, following the most prolific period of his career; his recent films include The Strange Case of Angelica and Gebo and the Shadow. Titled Visit, or Memories and Confessions, this unearthed film, slightly more than an hour long, screened at Cannes Classics last night—on celluloid, no less.

Funded in 1981 (the festival catalog gives the completion date as 1982), Visit is—it should come as a surprise to no one—an intensely personal movie, essentially a family album in motion. ‘It’s a film by me, about me,’ Oliveira says in voiceover as the movie begins. ‘Right or wrong, it’s done.’ Cued by an alternating man-and-woman narration, the movie is largely set on the grounds of a house that Oliveira tell us he has lived in since 1942. Part of the occasion for making the movie, it seems, is that he has had to sell the home to pay some debts.

At the risk of reading too much into Oliveira’s intentions, you can see why he might have wanted the movie released as a sort of ghost story. Much of Visit concerns the haunting emptiness of this once-bustling home: We hear constant footsteps and watch doors open, Jean Cocteau–style, as we move from room to room, but a good portion of the film goes by before we actually see a human being. The first is Oliveira himself, who appears at the typewriter where he writes his treatments and turns to the camera to address us.

His musings are as idiosyncratic as they are private. He waxes philosophical, shows us photographs and film footage of his family, and recalls visits to the house by such figures as the great film theorist André Bazin. His wife turns up briefly (‘You can’t separate the artist from the man,’ she says), but this is primarily Oliveira’s reflection on his own life.

Late in the film, in a powerful anecdote, he speaks of his 1963 arrest by the secret police under Portugal’s then-repressive government. ‘I’ve always sacrificed everything so I could make my films,’ he says. Visit closes with a flourish suggesting that this director who lived more than a century remained eternally young.”

I’d love to see this on DVD, but I doubt that will ever happen; one last gift from the great Manoel.

100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Hire Right Now

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

Hollywood’s lack of gender and racial diversity is just simply wrong.

As Kyle Buchanan points out in this excellent article in Vulture, “Studio executives often protest that there simply aren’t enough talented female filmmakers to choose from. They are wrong. Enough. Enough with the studios like 20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, and the Weinstein Company, none of which put out even a single film this year that was directed by a woman.

Enough with the executives who would rather hand a lucrative blockbuster to a man who’s never made a movie before (like Seth Grahame-Smith, the novice director recently picked by Warner Bros. to direct a big-budget adaptation of The Flash) than a woman who has. And enough with the producers who claim that there’s still just a shallow pool of female directors to draw from, because we’ve got 100 reasons why that’s not the case.

We’ve compiled a list of the best and brightest female directors in the industry, very few of whom are afforded the same major opportunities as their male counterparts. Some are promising up-and-comers, while others are award-winning veterans.

Their talents run the gamut from comedy to drama, and from action to arthouse. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, it wasn’t hard to assemble such an enormous list of smart, eminently hireable female directors. The only difficult part was culling it down to just 100.”

The names include Debbie Allen, Ana Lily Amirpour, Allison Anders, Gillian Armstrong, Jamie Babbit, Elizabeth Banks, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Lisa Cholodenko, Sophia Coppola, Tamra Davis, and that’s just the beginning of a very long list indeed, complete with clips from their films. Why aren’t these people working – right now?

Click here to go to the link; this is essential reading.

Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Rick Prelinger’s new film is a fascinating look into the history of Los Angeles.

As Carolina A. Miranda wrote in The Los Angeles Times on November 15, 2015, “A camera pans the streets of downtown Los Angeles from the window of a moving car, cruising past Mickie’s Café, John’s Dog House, an Orange Julius, the Angel’s Flight Café and the Burbank Burlesque, boasting a chorus line of ‘ California Beauties.’

If these places don’t sound familiar it’s because they’re long gone — shuttered, reborn as restaurants or discount clothing shops or torn down to make way for Bunker Hill’s towering Financial District.

But in a beguiling new film by Rick Prelinger, the Bay Area filmmaker known for working with bits of found film, they have come back to life. Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles splices together home movies and studio outtakes, primarily stock driving footage that serves as background in scenes where characters ride in cars or buses.

The film, whose footage dates from the 1920s to the 1960s, is more about mood than in telling a literal story — a nonlinear, highly poetic gathering of moving images that examine our city as it no longer exists.

It also doesn’t contain a soundtrack — which means the audience is free to chat or name a location they might be familiar with as the film screens. Says Prelinger: ‘I really like the idea of people talking and making the soundtrack and coming to an understanding together.’

The film is one in a series of movies that Prelinger has made in this way — including 10 on San Francisco and five on Detroit. He also made the 2013 film No More Road Trips, which tells the story of a road trip — from one side of the country to the other — by employing an array of amateur footage.”

A really interesting project – check it out if you can.

New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is a minor but enchanting Eric Rohmer film . . .

. . . and it’s too bad there won’t be any more, as even the slightest of Rohmer’s film is a tonic in the oversaturated, hyper-edited CGI world of the present, harking back to a time when humanistic concerns, were more important than the latest mobile gadget. As Aaron Goldberg wrote of the film when it first appeared in the web journal Senses of Cinema, “while not highly regarded (by some) in the expansive Rohmer canon, The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle stands as one of Rohmer’s most playful, if not hilarious features.

Filmed quickly on 16mm while Rohmer was waiting to get decent sunset shots for his sublime Le Rayon vert (1986), The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle features mainly non-professional actors who improvised most of the witty and frank dialogue . . .  Rohmer’s old-school (cinematic) ‘new wave’ chops are working in full effect here. From the shaky vérité camerawork, to long discussions about morality and art, his romantic heart is working in cruise control, delivering a film that ably stands it’s own ground.”

Added Caryn James in The New York Times, “as if making a joke about the famous talkiness of his films, Eric Rohmer’s latest work begins and ends with silence – or at least the idea of silence. In the first of the connected episodes in Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, the voluble Reinette treasures silence so much she wakes her friend Mirabelle before dawn to hear ‘the blue hour,’ which is not an hour but a second, not a sound but a brief silence between darkness and light, when the night birds stop singing and the day birds have not yet begun.

Four Adventures is more conspicuously comic, more overtly ethical, more pointed in its action than most of his recent works . . . Part of Rohmer’s genius, of course, is that he keeps creating such lives – ordinary and rarefied at once, almost but not quite beyond our grasp. No one actually lives in the world of a Rohmer film, where the name of a specific television show or rock star never mars a character’s timeless dialogue, where his characters’ heightened sense of everyday life seems absolutely adventurous.

But the deep lure of his work is the suggestion that it is possible to be as articulate or as witty or even as extravagantly morose as a Rohmer character, to stumble across those undramatic moments of perfect grace on some beach or in some meadow.”

Indeed, while the film may appear to be slight, it is in fact a resonant and uplifting work; it just seems effortless, but then again, when you’re a genius, you can knock films out like this in your sleep. But the saddest part about The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is that it isn’t available on DVD; there’s so much junk trolling about the web, but here’s a sublime and joyful film that really deserves a DVD release. But there is a VHS release, and since I still have a VHS player for such emergencies, I ordered one of the last copies available – used – on Amazon for about $10. You should do the same.

Every Eric Rohmer film is worth seeing, and this is one of his most playful, and joyful films.

Andy Warhol Eats A Hamburger

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015

Andy Warhol eats a hamburger. It almost looks like an Edward Hopper painting.

This is actually a segment from Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s 1982 film 66 Scenes from America, which the distributor, Doc Alliance films, describes as “reminiscent of a pile of postcards from a journey, which indeed is what the film is. It consists of a series of lengthy shots of a tableau nature, each appearing to be a more or less random cross section of American reality, but which in total invoke a highly emblematic picture of the USA. With the one travelling shot (through a car windscreen) and one pan (across a landscape) the tableau principle is only breached on two occasions; exceptions that prove the rule, so to speak.

The images or postcards may be viewed as a number of interlaced chains of motifs, varying from ultra close up to super wide, include pictures of landscapes, highways and advertising hoardings, buildings seen from without, mostly with a fluttering Stars and Stripes somewhere in the shot, objects such as coins on a counter, refrigerator with a number of typical food products, a plate of food at a diner or a bottle of Wild Turkey, and finally, people who introduce themselves (and sometimes the content of their lives in rough-hewn form) facing the camera: for example, the New York cabbie or the celebrities Kim Larsen and Andy Warhol.

The film actually consists of 75 shots but in some cases several shots combine in one scene, thus ending on sixty six. Each scene is delimited by the narrator; at the end of each shot he pins down the picture content, often by a simple indication of time or place, but in some cases more playfully, often shifting our perception in a surprising fashion. Similarly the sound close-ups in some scenes are intended to alter the viewer’s immediate interpretation of the picture content, while the mood-creating or interpretive use of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes (No. 5) provides the final component of the film.” Simple, meditative cinema.

Click here, or on the image above, to view. Now, wasn’t that delicious?

Welcome To This House: A Film About Elizabeth Bishop by Barbara Hammer

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers, has a new film out.

Barbara Hammer has been making brilliant and uncompromising independent films since the 1960s, and is still going strong, as evidenced by her recent retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as other venues, but now comes the news that Hammer has released a new feature film on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I have yet to see, but which I look forward to with great anticipation.

Her work is seemingly everywhere: in the past few years, Hammer was honored with a month long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City from September 11-October 13, 2010, and in February 2012 she had a month long retrospective at The Tate Modern in London, followed by retrospectives in Paris at Jeu de Paume in June 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in October 2013.

As the press materials for the film by Monica Nolan note, “poet Elizabeth Bishop has gained notoriety as much for her tempestuous romance with Lota de Macedo Soares as for her poetry. While that affair inspired a book and a movie (Reaching for the Moon), this new documentary broadens the focus and puts the Lota affair in context. Frameline24 Award recipient Barbara Hammer (whose previous films at Frameline are too numerous to list!) creates a layered portrait of the person behind the poet, from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her death in 1979.

Bishop described herself as ‘timorously kicking around the coastlines of the world,’ and the film is loosely organized around her stays in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil, and Cambridge—the homes she made for herself and the lovers she took. Never ‘out’ as a lesbian—the concept would have been foreign to the writer who graduated from Vassar in the thirties—Bishop nonetheless actively pursued women, from her first summer-camp crush to the May-December romance that was her last affair.

Hammer examines Bishop from all angles, interviewing everyone from literary luminaries like Marie-Claire Blais and Edmund White to Lota’s aged former maid. Hammer pulls the viewer into Bishop’s world, blending present day footage of each location with archival photos, and recreating moments in the writer’s life. Throughout the film we hear Bishop’s own words, read by Kathleen Chalfant, revealing yet another facet of a complicated and passionate woman.”

Barbara Hammer (right) with Florrie Burke. Photo: Joyce Culver.

This sounds like a typically brilliant film from Hammer, who has made over 80 moving image works in a career that spans 40 years, and is considered a pioneer of queer cinema. In the meantime, you should check out Barbara Hammer’s latest doings as chronicled on her website by clicking here, or on the image above – with news of her latest doings in the world of cinema, someone who is courageously moving forward in an era in which the arts are often pushed aside by the incessant pursuit of comic book films and other non-demanding escapist entertainment. Want some real nutrition for a change? Then check out Barbara Hammer’s work, and see what you’ve been missing.

Barbara Hammer – one of the most important independent filmmakers working in cinema today.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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